Lessons from Egypt: “Revolution Is Art!” A Western Fantasy?
By Peter Dobey
One year ago Egyptians were not fighting, but celebrating the first civilian elected president in Egyptian history. That is the simplistic notion Western media has. During the onslaught of the 2011 “revolutions” mainstream Western media, as well as art journals and blogs, reveled in glorifying the role that artists and new technologies played in the uprisings of 2011 that would result in Mohamed Morsi being elected President in 2012. Exactly one year after the date of his inauguration on June 30th, and again on July 2nd, protests reported as some of the largest in world history took place in Cairo, acting as catalysts to the military ouster of President Morsi and the upholding of the constitution on July 3rd. This led to subsequent massive protests, notably and recently on July 26th. In hindsight, it seems as though the excitement the art press exuded in 2011 had more to do with expounding the virtues of Twitter and the desire for the art world to be included in politics rather than a genuine concern for Egypt. The proof of this may be the near-silence of the same art sources pertaining to the current uprisings. For the most part, the art press has remained silent on the issue, perhaps because the reality of violence is too sensitive a topic for the art press to say anything meaningful about or engage with on a responsible level. This is probably a correct stance to take. The uprisings present too grave a humanitarian situation for the art world to make claims about via its posturing. When the situation has been considered, most Western journalists of major publications and cultural writers have made grave journalistic errors.
One approach toward a better understanding of the situation on the ground is to try to create a rudimentary awareness of the catalysts that drove the preexisting friction to its current, and thundering impasse. SFAQ spoke with members of the Egyptian arts community in order to gain a better understanding of artistic involvement in the ongoing Egyptian uprisings.
The current situation on the ground is one that can accurately be called revolutionary, and artists have staged rallies and protests that are epoch-making, and unparalleled by any attempt artists in the West have made to influence society. Their actions show that artists can have a profound impact on civic uprisings and society in general. The role artists played in the revolutions of 2011, no matter how exaggerated the western art press made it out to be, made unassailable contributions towards the spirit of upheaval that continues to play out in Egyptian society today. But this effect is less the cause of artists and more the tremendous influence this revolutionary spirit has had on society as a whole. Nonetheless, specific examples of artistic dissent beg questions about what contributions, if any, artists have in broader social engagement, especially in times of revolution. If there ever was a contemporary revolution, it is happening in Egypt as we speak. The strife and political turmoil is so enmeshed in all aspects of Egyptian societies that no one is left unscathed, not the least of which artists. It may be a mistake, however, to define distinctly the interactions artists have with society as being any different than any other individual’s engagement.
Artists have been pro-active in the constant struggle for a new Egyptian identity since 2011, but the anger escalated when Alaa Abdel-Aziz was appointed Culture Minister by President Morsi’s cabinet on May 7th of this year. In less than a week he had dismissed Ahmed Megahed, head of General Book Organization, followed later by the removal of many senior cultural sector leaders from their posts such as Salah El-Meligy, head of the Fine Arts Sector, and Abdel-Wahed El-Nabawe, head of the Egyptian National Archives, to name a few crucial posts operating under the Ministry of Culture. These dismissals angered artists who saw them as part of a further “Brotherhoodization” of the cultural sectors. They roused members of the arts community to start protests as early as the 14th of May, when they marched from the Cairo Opera House to the office of Abdel-Aziz inside Egypt’s Ministry of Culture headquarters in the Zamalek district of Cairo to protest his appointment. They would return on and off for over a month in protest. Crucially, on May 28th, Ines Abdel-Dayem of the Cairo Opera House was fired without reason. Despite all odds, she had instilled a dynamic vibrancy to the post-revolution opera house. In the year and a half as chairperson of the Cairo Opera House she had pioneered a diverse program that introduced local independent artists to a broader audience, opened its doors to international artists and established important partnerships with other cultural centers in Egypt as well as international cultural foundations and embassies. She accomplished all this under conditions of severely diminished funding and a deprecative political atmosphere whose governing body would eventually issue her a dismissal letter from a minister who never communicated with her. In response to this groundless dismissal, that same evening artists and intellectuals held their biggest protest yet on the grounds of the opera house and brought a performance of “Aida” to a standstill when they held an on stage sit-in to protest her removal. As the protestors lingered into the evening, Abdel-Aziz audaciously appointed the opera’s stage manager to head the Opera House, understandably inciting further outrage among the arts community.
The demonstrations in front of the headquarters of the Ministry of Culture carried on with the continual demand for Abdel-Aziz to leave his post. June 2nd was a notable and loud afternoon of concerts and performances by independent and renowned musicians from the local arts communities. Adding to the commotion, many protesters began chanting loudly for Abdel-Aziz to resign, and these chants were met with counter responses shouted by some employees of the ministry. The artists then blockaded the front and back of the headquarters, trapping Abdel-Aziz in his office until 7:30pm.
June 5th was attended by a relatively small number of protesters in front of the ministry. This gave rise to an opportunity: security officers were not on high alert. Many artists and activists took advantage of this by swiftly storming the main building and breaking into the ministry, demanding the replacement of Abdel-Aziz and occupying the interior of the building with art and signs of protest and a banner was draped from the exterior’s façade. Of pivotal significance, the Ministry of Culture was the only ministry in Cairo to be stormed by civilians. Here we can truly claim these artists to be radical.
By evening, hundreds of individuals joined the protesting artists and helped cultivate a celebratory environment consisting of many types of performances, and art related activities. That night approximately thirty artists slept inside the ministry building. The sit-in at the ministry continued on end over the course of the proceeding weeks with concerts and various activities held regularly in relative peace, albeit with one attempt on June 11th to break up the sit-ins by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood that resulted in some security officers being injured. By mid-June word had caught on and a similar artists sit-in took place in Alexandria.
On the 29th, Maha Effat, the spokesman for the Revolutionary Artists Coalition, one of the artist groups with a strong presence at the protests of the cultural headquarters in Zamalek, formally announced that the artists protesting at the ministry would march to Tahrir Square the next day on the 30th, but it is of great importance to recognize that this was not an autonomous campaign. This march was in conjunction with the pre-existence of widely publicized anti-government protests planned in Tahrir Square for many weeks prior. Although these artist-activists accomplished precedent setting initiatives for their own cause, their actions were only a miniscule blip on the radar of Cairo, one rally among many taking place simultaneously across the city. There was mounting public fervor prevalent for weeks in anticipation of the protests of June 30th that would explode into a fever pitch.
In fairness, the protesting artists did play a remarkably strong supportive role in the midst of the much larger widespread popular uprising, and on that fateful Sunday, the artists’ procession towards Tahrir was the largest march organized by artists in Egyptian history. Still, no claim can be made that these artists had anything to do with the immensity and significance of the ensuing uprisings other than their participation among countless others.
For those interested in the progress of artistic demonstrations, Ahram Online has provided a timeline documenting the arts community’s struggle for Egypt’s cultural identity.
Some journalists jumped the gun by attaching an art context to the current political upheavals, and their assumptions now seem naïve and detached from reality, if not belittling to the real life atrocities that have taken place. In an editorial for CNN the day before the military forcibly removed president Morsi, Cynthia Schneider acted as a harbinger for the notion that artists played the most pivotal role in precipitating the demonstrations of June 30th against Morsi. Schneider, a professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Brookings Institute, argued that the occupation of Egypt’s Ministry of Culture was a dominant factor in facilitating the larger protests of June 30th. This is simply not true. For weeks, many television stations, stenciled graffiti and banners plastered across Cairo had announced a call for a massive rally to take place June 30th, much of which was promoted by the highly influential “Tamarod” opposition movement.
The sentiment that artists are “canaries in the coalmine” is a beautiful idea, but one at odds with the complexities of Egyptian realities and political strife. One must wonder why Schneider considered the occupation so crucial. While she is a professor of “cultural diplomacy” at Georgetown and is involved in the Middle East cultural scene, Schneider is not herself an artist. It is possible to make an allegation against her that she is furthering the agenda of Western “cultural producers”, commentators and curators who, especially of late, have become obsessed with the promotion of art as a social tool rather than an agent of beauty and contemplation. More pertinently, the publication of her article for CNN shows further disregard for the integrity of Egyptian view points, as can be seen by the creation of the “CNN SUPPORTS TERRORISM” Facebook page created by Egyptians, expressing disdain for CNN’s unfairly (Western) biased coverage. This is the issue at hand: cultural pundits in the West speaking of Middle East conflict as if the circumstances are something to be understood and resolved from their particular standpoint and not the local one.
The suggestion that artists led the current revolution and “occupied the front lines against repression,” to use Schneider’s words, is a remarkable proposal, but just plain wrong. Even to read this phrase literally is a mistake, when the sit-ins were attacked on June 11th by Muslim Brotherhood supporters, the front line defense was formed by non-artists; in general the artists at the sit-ins did not engage in acts of aggression. On the surface, Schneider’s assessment seems a long way from the presumed instigations by Western media that the protests and escalating violence are a simplistic fight between secularism and Islam, democracy versus military rule, etc. In fact it was just another presumptuous and removed assertion to simplistically define and make sense of the situation. Clearly, none of these attempted definitions take us very far.
Taking a similar intellectually stimulating but unfair proposal to an extreme was the American writer and artist Randy Gener, writing for the Irish online newspaper TheJournal.ie. His Op-ed, with its tech slanted jargon, led with the header “Make no mistake: artists have led Egypt’s Revolution 2.0, which moved to depose its first freely elected Islamist president.” Continuing, Gener exclaims that Egypt’s ‘Summer of Re-Awakening’ “all began when Egyptian artists occupied the culture ministry building in Cairo.” “Egypt is deeply divided between Morsi’s Islamist supporters and a broad-based opposition, led by artists.” The premise is an exaggeration to say the least and the last statement is just plain offensive, as if the calls by millions upon millions of everyday citizens to put an end to the corruption of Morsi and their anger towards the Muslim Brotherhood were negligible in comparison to the sizable, but still relatively modest numbers of artists who held the sit-ins. The artists’ march of June 30th formidably consisted of thousands, but is still a miniscule fraction in comparison to the millions of protesters who hit the streets that day.
Concerning the level of artistic involvement, can artists really be given such credit, or is this yet another example of the West romanticizing a spirit of revolution that they can only hope is imbued with their own desires? Artists can be given real credit for vociferously defending Egypt’s national and cultural identity, which consists of a variety of elements and cannot be limited to the singular (as is the hope of the Muslim Brotherhood). Egyptian artists should rightfully be given credit for defending culture; that is their domain, but only one societal domain among many others whose members protested in the name of their respective needs. Everyone in the Egyptian art community with whom who I shared these articles found them incredibly simplistic, insincere and just plain untrue. The following are some remarks.
Dina Kafafi, Program Coordinator for the influential Cairo based “Townhouse Gallery” had the following to say about the aforementioned presumptions made about the current role played by Egyptian artists.
“There is a grave mistake in thinking that the June 30th uprisings are rooted in the artist sit-ins at the Ministry of Culture. The June 30th uprisings really started from the bottom up. It was a result of people being fed up with the current situation, the economic struggle, in addition to a changing Egyptian identity. Artists are great communicators. They have creative ways of reaching people, tearing down social boundaries, unifying the people and inspiring them; that is their role, but to suggest that they were the motive force behind the larger protests and Egyptian revolution is unfair and misleading. Egyptian television channels had nationalistic songs and video clips playing between television shows and the news, calling for the people to take to the streets, and activists and other groups organized citywide marches. It was a collaborative effort”
One artist who was active in both the artist sit-ins and who also was celebrating the elections one year ago is Osama Dawod, who received his MFA in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute. He had the following to say:
“I want to clear out a few facts. First, I was one of those who got excited about the end of Morsi’s presidency, and one of those disagreeing with the Muslim Brothers’ mindset. Yet, I was very excited by the result of the elections a year ago even though I boycotted the run off because clearly none of the two candidates represented anything I would anticipate.
Secondly, I was part of the artists’ sit-in at the headquarters of the Ministry of Culture. Now, I assure you, that sit-in had nothing or little to do, if anything, with the masses who occupied the streets on June 30th. Did the one-month sit in move masses? No. Was the voice of artists heard merrily for their demand? No. I was personally surprised that it lasted as long as it did. But did anyone apart from the artists and the residents of Zamalek where the ministry is located care about the sit-in? Definitely not the millions of people who hit the street!
Over the course of the month prior to June 30th, many outlets, from a wide range of ‘claimed’ backgrounds including but not limited to some television channels of both pro Mubarak and anti-Mubarak persuasions were advertising and promoting ‘the event.’ Some went as far as having a ‘JUNE 30’ logo on the corner of their screen! Not to mention celebrities, army and police generals on talk shows arguing for people to hit the streets and to stand for their rights! Police officers turned magically into a friendly species! ‘Revolutionary’ ones even! The popular uprising of June 30th was an event. That event was very well attended. It was an event that required an outcome or had a demand (a concert for instance, such as musicians held at the sit-ins, will not have a demand). That demand was met soon, within 48 hours.”
Ati Metwaly, a journalist who has done an extraordinary job documenting the ongoing engagements of Egyptian artists within the larger uprisings had this to contribute:
“There was an undeniable input of artists in the build-up towards the protests of June 30th. Their role however was present since January 2011, taking the form of documentary films and photography, and reactionary artistic commentary such as graffiti, and relevant artwork in a variety of mediums. Those were largely works done by independent artists.
Artists played an important role in defending the cultural identity of Egypt over the past two years, and they fought particularly hard for it during the two months preceding June 30th, marked by Abdel-Aziz being put in the office where this identity was being ‘attacked.’
Since the Muslim Brotherhood came to power one year ago, artists started playing not only reactive but also pro-active roles in society, becoming a force which was constantly standing up against the plans to ‘Brotherhoodize’ Egyptian culture and hence the country’s identity at large. The occupation of the cultural ministry is one of the important dates, yet there were other equally important dates that led up to the much larger events of June 30th. The on-stage strike of artists performing “Aida” on May 28th was one of the most unprecedented events in the cultural history of Egypt, the first of its kind, bringing to mind the long history and crucial importance of this opera and the fact that no cultural strikes had taken place in this scene.
The occupation on June 5th was an act of protest joining many other protests that were unveiling during those weeks. We must not forget that the Ministry of Culture was the only ministry that was stormed by the people.
Apart from the protests against Abdel Aziz and the government as a whole it was also a crucial symbolic proclamation that the ministry belongs to the people. This carries a significant weight taking into consideration fifty years of the controversial history of this ministry and its role in society that had already been put to question by artists for many months (Metwaly writes at length about these confrontations in her May 26th article for the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat “Still Butting Heads”).
The artists’ protests and marches which took place over the course of May and June have undeniably contributed to the general mood that came to define the June 30th protests but I emphasize ‘contributed.’ It is in the natural character of artists (as performers and defenders of cultural identity and freedom of expression in every country, not only Egypt) that makes their protests especially attractive and attracts attention of passers by who usually join. However their protests were only a part of the many elements that created a unanimous build-up towards the nationwide protests of June 30th. The artists’ march of June 30th was the largest march of artists in Egypt’s history. It consisted of numerous independent artists, collectives, and well known stars, etc., but many similar marches consisting of representatives of different fields marched in protest as well on that day.”
Further coverage of Ati Metwaly’s can be read at Ahram Online, where she is editor of the arts and culture section, and Al Ahram Weekly, where she is a music critic, as well as her blog, atimetwaly.com. She can be followed on Twitter: @atimetwaly.
The ongoing strife in Egypt is part of decades and centuries of turmoil involving the whole of Egyptian society, with various socio-cultural groups clashing with each other, demanding their particular desires to be met, and Egyptian artists have loudly voiced demands specific to their own needs, but it is a huge misconception to say that these are the same needs of everyone who took to the streets on June 30th. This is not, however, to downplay the crucial roles played by Egyptian artists today. On the contrary, Egyptian artists may be some of the few individuals in the art world who actually do work for and strive for the good of the larger society they are embedded within. Unlike many artists in the West, who tend to live amongst extremely isolated and privileged social spheres, and claim to be making art under the auspices of social engagement, collaborative production and “relational practices”, artists in Egypt have made efforts to reach out to society that are often very successful. Many independent art spaces such as Townhouse Gallery and other artistic initiatives are aligned with the larger society and engage with it on a sincere level. One of the biggest complaints directed at the new cultural sector under Abdel-Aziz was that it made little or no attempt to connect with society at large. Egyptian artists have made a dent in the society they live – that cannot be said of any arts community in the United States or Europe. But these artists are not claiming that it is the domain of art that is making this dent, and the thrust of dissent they have turned into tangible action certainly is not predicated on theoretical postulations. Egyptian artists may rightfully be deemed “revolutionary artists,” because they are engaging in the real deal. First as human beings and citizens, and as artists second. Their fight is one of human rights and the identity of their nation, not the legitimization of their art practices. Egyptian artists have taken on crucial roles as an inextricable part of the fabric of their society since the beginning of the 2011 revolutions: this is a degree of influence that in no certain way can be said to have taken place in the contemporary art world of the West, even if some individuals and groups have tried.
Again, Dina Kafafi elaborates:
“Since the 2011 uprisings in Egypt, Egyptian artists’ role in society has changed from lending their creative skills to creating a platform for communication, debate and social engagement amongst citizens, to formulating collectives of different visions to deconstruct these open discussions and pursue activities which directly or indirectly feed into this momentum of rebuilding or restructuring Egyptian society. Since the 2011 uprisings, there was a new energy born on the ground, where people realized the importance of their voice and have taken the responsibility of saving Egypt into their own hands.
Collectives such as Mosireen, an artist run media collective aiming at documenting political events and social issues relative to the revolution, have gained popularity on a local and international level, and legitimacy in serving as an alternative news source to the biased and opaque media outlets the general public has access to. These outlets have risen as they have filled a gap in the representation and documentation of an ongoing revolution. Other artists have reached out through their networks or gone on residencies abroad to better represent the on-goings of the political situation in Egypt to gain support and clarify the misconceptions easily illustrated via misinformed or biased news sources abroad. Another campaign, which includes artists and activists, titled “Kazeboon” (meaning liars) worked on unraveling the army and the brotherhood’s deception or agenda through low budget films projected in the streets, or making an archive of different people’s video clips or photographs of certain events accessible to the public online. They also contributed to the graffiti in the streets with powerful slogans and imagery emphasizing the importance of a peaceful democratization of Egypt.
Through these various efforts, they are collectively empowering the people and actively creating socially and politically engaged citizens. The arts community doesn’t necessarily make collective decisions, but they do often support each other’s causes and reach out to their common networks for support and to foster better communication amongst all. Being an artist in Egypt today naturally evokes social responsibilities which the political environment demands, due to their creativity in conveying a message and their strong impact on public opinion, especially on the ground.”
This level of social engagement on behalf of these artists, which led to the artists’ demonstrations, concerts, sit-ins and the storming of the cultural ministries’ headquarters (even placing art inside of it!) is nothing short of revolutionary, but it is debatable if the distinct kind of creativity harbored by these members of the Egyptian art community can be designated as inherently different than the type of creation that arises from any other impetus to take up political arms. The protests staged by these artists allow for a great examining of the role art can play in revolutionary times. It also begs for a definition of “revolution.”
For the past fifteen years or so, one of the most popular themes in contemporary art, mainly espoused by a tight knit group of Western curators, has been for art to interact with society at large in new ways. One can already imagine curatorial preachers of “relational aesthetics,” “social practice” and “urban studies” appropriating these actions of Egyptian artists towards promoting their own solipsistic and self-indulgent theoretical agendas. The preachers of these trends like to see themselves as revolutionaries, but holler like bullies from an imaginary pulpit of their own vain creation: the stage of the global art market. A stage that’s as removed as humanly possible from any real life turbulence or societal engagement that could be described as “revolutionary.” The presumptions of “social relevancy” coming from the anything-but-relevant neoliberal art world must be interrogated.
None the less, these curators and art theorists will surely gloat about Egypt in catalog essays and Biennial mission statements in order to ridicule the notion of autonomous art and to make distinctions between the social and political relevancy of the “happenings” and “infiltrations” of these Egyptian artists and what they have decided is the outdated and obsolete entity of beauty in art. To make such a distinction implies that there is a direct correlation between the essence of art made by artists and the purpose of the demonstrations the same artists facilitate. That is a categorical mistake. We must remember that these brave Egyptian artists were not claiming to make art when they occupied the opera or the cultural ministry; they were there to protect art, to protect beauty and to protect the freedom to create freely, as they choose. The same curators that will applaud the actions of these artist-activist Egyptians would probably deride the same classical mediums of opera and ballet as being irrelevant and extraneous to the contemporary world. The same art these Egyptian artists vehemently defended.
The Egyptian situation provides insights into how artists in today’s purported “globalized world” actually position themselves within the particular contexts of the social realities of their communities. Their attitudes do not necessarily share the same convictions concerning the nature and role of artistic intervention as those of self established curatorial authorities in the art world and media. It is high time for these false authorities to meet eye to eye with the actuality of the blood, sweat and tears they have fantasized about in leisure. The ongoing turmoil in Egypt allows for the interrogation of these “socially relevant” artistic “practices” to be examined from a standpoint of actual social interaction, collaboration and conflict. While the tastemakers of the Western art world work from countries of relative stability and move within even safer social bubbles, the artists of Egypt work within actual social upheaval and revolution. Can the art world admit to this?
If we in the Western art world are to take note of naïve interpretations such as that of Schneider and Gener that leave the opinions of artists out of the picture, their irresponsible dictums can be seen as a metaphor for how the art press, curators and directors of museums in the West have increasingly made attempts to define the direction of international artistic currents; not from the perspective of singular artists and the creations they make, but from their own theoretical and political agendas. Essentially, this is defining the characteristics of creation itself, rather than reflecting and commenting on artistic creations from a disinterested viewpoint, as is the traditional role of art critics and curators. Instead of presenting the news, Schneider and Gener attempted to steer the news themselves. To be a revolutionary is to take a moral and ethical stance that entails a responsibility of accepting freedom for what is: the acceptance of ideas that don’t always correlate with your own. It would seem that many Western art curators and museum directors no longer serve to curate art, but to curate the act of creation itself. In their quest to be seen as revolutionaries they have become dictators.
SFAQ is sincerely grateful to those who contributed, with a special thanks to Keith Lane for his photography, more of which can be viewed at www.keithlanephotography.com and to Ati Metwaly who provided her careful fact checking and noteworthy photography.